The economy of nature, its checks and balances, its measurements of competing life – all this is its great marvel and has an ethic of its own.
Henry Beston, “The Outermost House,” 1928
It has become an onerous challenge to eat healthy and with a clear conscience. Fish is either endangered or overdosed with mercury, not to mention the ethical issues associated with harvest techniques. Beef and milk are laced with antibiotics, and the industrialized production associated with chicken and turkey is akin to an X-rated horror film. One well-kept secret in the culinary world of eating healthy is quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”). Considered the food of the gods in the Andes Mountains where it originated, quinoa is about as close to culinary heaven as any omnivore could wish. Along with corn and potatoes, quinoa was a staple of the Andean diet when the Inca civilization thrived several thousand years ago. In Bolivia, teams of Inca runners carried messages across great alpine distances, sometimes covering 150 miles in one day. These amazing athletes chewed coca leaves mixed with ash from the quinoa plant, increasing their oxygen levels because quinoa released alkaloids in the coca. It was considered sacred food: It inspired long-distance running and also was considered a spiritual tonic.
The Incas cultivated terraces of quinoa, but Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1532 with his militia. His conquest of the Incas included destruction of all their quinoa fields. Worse, Pizarro forbade Incas to partake in ceremonies or rituals involving quinoa, forcing them to grow wheat and barley instead. A small group of Incas secretly cultivated their precious quinoa in hidden locations, which is the seed source of this now-revived crop. Today, quinoa is grown in limited quantities in Canada and the Colorado Rockies, but predominantly imported from South America. The popularity of this grain from the Chenopodiaceae or goosefoot family (which also includes beets, chard and spinach) is growing rapidly as people discover its healthy attributes and delicious taste.
In the world of ethnobotany (the study of the uses of plants), quinoa was used to treat a wide variety of ailments. Indians used it as a diuretic and to treat urinary tract problems, tuberculosis, appendicitis, liver problems, altitude and motion sickness, and bone problems.
What a plant! It is also high in protein and complex carbohydrates, rich in vitamins and minerals, and low in fat – hence the nickname, “super grain.” As a recent convert to serving quinoa at my dinner table, the best news of all is that it tastes delicious – slightly crunchy, nutty and filling. Bon appétit!